There are moments in life that are slow in coming. Moments, that perhaps, one has been looking forward and even yearning for days, months or years. Moments by which one learns to cultivate patience, while every day putting a little of oneself in order to eventually make them real. So I've waited for years the moment to get to Mongolia, a country that I have been wanting to visit for longer than I can remember. As time goes on, the more I tend to believe that there is an intrinsic intelligence in how fate sorts the events of life, because I could have chosen many other opportunities to travel around this country but they would have never been the right time. This time it was, at least so it felt and the experience was one of those who sublimate the soul and overflow the senses.
Sumatra's crossing left me below the 63 kg of weight, and while we were on the plane to Beijing I could already imagine myself getting fatter, delighting myself with the favorite dishes of the country that is my home away from my home. Returning to China, even if it was just passing through like this time, is like coming back home. After so many years living here, everything is familiar and easy. Beijing is not the favorite place of "my country", but it was the necessary stopover on our way to Mongolia. Our planned 7 days stay, quickly stretched to 21, "thanks" to the bureaucracies that we had to overcome: obtaining a visa for Mongolia, sending my camera to the Nikon hospital, buying clothes for an upcoming not-so pleasant weather, but above all, it was good for giving time to the body to recover and leave that delicious food take over to hide my ribs. Shao Ming and Xiao Ming, two avid local cyclists and true friends, welcomed us as brothers in their chaotic home / workshop. After their respective travels from China to Europe by bicycle and already back at home, founded BOSKEY, their own brand of touring bicycles and, already with their first 50 units ready, offered us two for test drive through Mongolia and serve them as critics on our return. We accepted and did not regret.
Entering through the cave
Since we had to leave Beijing and return to it via exactly the same border crossing which would involve cycling twice part of the way, and since we had already missed many days doing paperwork, we chose to get to Ulaanbaatar by train and cycle the way back. Two train combinations and a whole day trip later, we arrived at the border. Entering Mongolia at the frontier post of Er Lian - Zamyn-Udd in the Gobi Desert, is a nerve-racking experience, to say the least. A stupid regulation forbid walking or pedaling the no man's land's 200 meters separating both border posts, which has resulted in a prolific mafia of drivers which, with half-shattered Russian jeeps, loaded to the unimaginable with people and packages, charge around $10 per person for transporting you those damned 200 meters. This blatant ripoff gets even worse when the bastards, don't wait for you during migration clearing and continue on their way after charging you. This made us make a huge fuss at the migration offices in order to make officials force some of these mobsters to take us without charging us again. It is a regrettable way to enter the country but we already knew this would happen in advance, so we had to bite the knuckles and swallow the anger. Once past the border , it feels like taking a step right away into prehistory, so much for being Zamyn-udd a sandy and precarious town in the middle of the desert that seems to have been completely forgotten, and for being the place where the impossible Mongolian language forces us to communicate with people using signs and gestures like primates.There, we connected as soon as possible with the last train to the capital, but we would return.
Judging from its main city (and the just passed "front door"), it is impossible to believe that something beautiful can happen in this country. Ulaanbaatar is a horrifying city. An urban error in a magnificent setting. An agglomeration of sordid Soviet architecture concrete blocks near collapse mixed now and then with modern aberrations. Traced by broken asphalt and dirt streets, on which cars in extremely poor condition are driven by people who, following the legacy of Mongolia's great hero, Genghis Khan, seem to want to take over the world while driving them as untamed horses. The Mongolian automotive fleet rarely includes new vehicles but is rather a mixture of leftovers; crappy used vehicles coming from Japan and Korea. This generates an essential problem: if in Korea the steering wheel is on the left and, in Japan is on the right, where should you drive in Mongolia? Officially on the right but in reality, such as riding a horse on the steppe: on all sides and in every direction. After all, until a few years ago, it was completely normal to find people horse riding in the very heart of the city.
Almost half of the entire population lives in the city, leaving the rest of this vast country practically empty. About 1.3 million people stick together in small dwellings and, a majority coming from impoverished regions, settle in improvised gers on the outskirts of the city. Wrapping around the urban center, the scarce country industry encloses the city and pollutes it in a highly toxic way.
Finally, in Ulaanbaatar, to close the picture of this circus, it doesn't take more than walking a few meters to meet face to face with the devastating problem that we would see throughout the country, but most notably in their cities: alcoholism. In a country where a bottle of vodka costs about the same as an orange juice one, something is not right. The parade of drunks in the city is surrealistic to say the least, and definitely tragicomical, especially for me as a strict nondrinker. Unlike the West, where the problem seems to stand out more during evenings at times of partying, outings and/or celebrations, here it happens at all hours and at all times being almost exclusively, a problem of men. They can be seen in the middle of the street mumbling incoherencies alone or trying to find balance to stay upright while walking from side to side bumping into everything and everyone on the way. Sometimes they are seen hugging each other trying not to fall but eventually, they end up falling at last. In many cases, they are seen in a state closer to coma than to life, alongside any street or even in the middle of it.
the alcoholism problem here is distressing. I have been to, and even lived in countries where people drink in a dreadful manner but nothing compares to the parade of drunks that Mongolia provides, not only in quality but also in remarkable quantity. Therefore, needless to say that running into drunks can be a problem and it is preferable to avoid it at all costs, since the Mongols get especially annoying when drunk. The rest of the people, the sober, seem to have been embittered by the life in the big city. Despite noting certain general apathy in people, it does not take long to notice a remarkable exotic beauty especially in women.
We spent two days in Ulaanbaatar adapting ourselves to the country, researching the options for a new diet and getting used to the climate a bit. Mongolia, even in midsummer, reveals his famous extreme weather with days averaging 27 Cº, and nights that can get as low as 7 Cº, and a climate with such a dryness that leaves the throat feeling like sandpaper. From here, with our clean and shiny brand new bicycles, we would finally leave towards an unimaginably beautiful world, a tale world, a world out of this world.